Battle weary: as fire season looms, volunteers still coping with the last one

The day the fires hit Manyana on the NSW South Coast, it seemed to Bill Eger the laws of physics had shifted.

Power poles exploded ahead of the front, their cross beams left dangling from wires. The sky spat fireballs on a New Year’s Eve like none before.

Bill Eger, a volunteer firefighter revisits NSW South Coast forests near Manyana now beginning to recover after last summer’s massive fires.Credit:Peter Izzard

By then Eger and fellow Rural Fire Service volunteers had been fighting the monstrous Currowan fire for more days than they could remember. Despite their seasoned familiarity with fires, this one kept surprising.

One blackburn they lit on a slope on a still, cool predawn morning should have slowed the front. Instead, the flames rolled downhill, igniting a rainforest that would not have burnt in a normal year.

“I don’t think a single containment line we put in held,” Eger says. “The fire just laughed at them.”

Eger's experiences were soon to become a lot more intense, and if the submissions to the independent NSW Bushfire Inquiry are any guide, uncomfortably common across a range of fire grounds.

The inquiry's report, released this week, goes to some length to trumpet the "extraordinary contributions" made by volunteers like Eger. "[T]he community is overwhelmingly grateful for their hard work and sacrifice," it says.

Still, with brigades up and down the state juggling the training of some 4000 fresh volunteers amid the challenges of coronavirus and a new fire season already unfolding in the state's north, the inquiries key findings are at risk of being ignored or misconstrued.

The government says it will act on all the inquiry's 76 recommendations but it will do well to remember volunteers like Eger who, the report declares "were at the heart of the 2019-20 fire-fighting effort".

Many of the report's numbers are fearfully large, like the 26 lives lost, 2476 homes destroyed and 5.5 million hectares scorched. But for the 277,415 firefighter shifts, those NSW figures would have been even more tragic.

In theory, RFS protocol caps shifts at 12 hours maximum, with nine hours of rest, and no more than five days or three nights in a row. In practice, those “fatigue management requirements may be altered in circumstances where life and property are at imminent and serious risk”.

An RFS fire fighter on the North Black Range last November, with months more fires to come at that point.Credit:Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

That day Eger assisted the RFS Shoalhaven group five captain John Ashton dispatching already exhausted crews from a makeshift operations hub in Milton showgrounds. He remembers the sense of helplessness in the early afternoon as the emergency calls piled up beyond their capacity to respond.

“These weren’t little calls either. It was things like, ‘Disabled couple trapped in house, fire at door' or 'Group trapped in pool, house on fire',” he says.

As tension mounted and resources overwhelmed, Eger answered a radio call from a hoarse voice saying simply: “Help. Help. My wife’s been burnt”.

As Eger tried to ring back, all he got was silence – and a growing worry that the voice sounded like Alex Frew, the father of his partner Melody.

Homes go up in the Hillville fire in Failford during fires last November.Credit:Nick Moir

Eger knew the two, along with Alex's wife June, had been at their property surrounded by national park to defend the well-prepared homes and protect the injured wallabies and wombats in their care.

This might have been a risk, but not a foolish one. Alex was an RFS veteran of 30 years and the home was well prepared. They each had protective clothing.

Before Eger could dwell on his fears, Melody rang through, her voice oddly calm. Her parents were badly burnt, with June’s skin coming away.

The fire was all around and Eger knew there was nobody left to dispatch.

Mike Gorman, a seasoned RFS volunteer from Kangaroo Valley who spent much of the summer fighting fires including the Currowan, was all too familiar with tales like Eger's.

Safety issues: A firefighter is assisted seconds after being hit in thick smoke as fire roared through eastern Bilpin in the Blue Mountains in December.Credit:Nick Moir

His own brigade came close to losing trucks and four crews when a sudden wind shift on January 4 left them trapped in a so-called Dead Man's Zone of danger. As he wrote in a submission to the inquiry, "it is the most serious near-miss that I am aware of in the history of the Kangaroo Valley Brigade”.

And yet, as the Herald reported in April, the incident was not discussed in "after-action reviews" despite two crew members having to take shelter in a farmer's dam and another crew waiting six hours before rescue.

"There were at least 50 near-misses or incidents" in the Shoalhaven region that Gorman knows about, he says this week. These included fires burning over vehicles, brakes failing on trucks, and drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

Mike Gorman, deputy captain of the Kangaroo Valley Rural Fire Service unit, said his crew was in a “near-miss incident” during a big fire in January.Credit:Louise Kennerley

"Our own brigade [review] did not record even one safety issue after more than four months of fires," he says.

To his surprise, the inquiry report itself made no mention of such reviews even though they have the potential to highlight safety and other issues so they can be addressed.

In practice, such reviews are "designed to bury things, not bring them to the surface", Gorman says. That's in stark contrast to the mining industry, where safety gatherings are "the most important meeting each month".

Gorman, who helped set up a community-level bushfire response network in Kangaroo Valley, has been painstakingly working his way through the 1967 submissions to the NSW inquiry, and the similar number to the bushfire royal commission that is due to release its preliminary findings on August 31.

He notes neither the RFS nor the Volunteer Fire Fighters' Association actively encouraged the people on the frontlines to make submissions detailing what worked and didn't during the Black Summer of fire. Nor was the association, which counts thousands of members, called to the inquiry itself.

An RFS firefighter involved in hazard-reduction burns in north Sydney this week.Credit:Nick Moir

"There has been no acknowledgement of any cultural issues within the RFS yet references to problems have been identified in many submissions," Gorman says.

Some, such as by Andrew Kaye and Peter Verhoeven from the Blue Mountains District, have put their names to their missives. Theirs calls for an overhaul of fatigue management policies.

"During the Long Gully Fire, strike teams were deployed from base camps over two to three hours away from the fireground," they wrote. "This often meant that these teams were not returning to the base camp inside 16 or even 20 hours.

"With no welfare checks done from fire comms, crews were forced to self monitor for the long trip back, with the expectation that they be redeployed the following day with minimal rest time," they said.

Other submissions were made anonymously, such as by a volunteer from the Southern Highlands brigade who describes being sent to Buxton, an area they were unfamiliar with.

"On arrival we realised we had driven straight into the fire at the end of a cul‐de‐sac. Attempts to save two houses at the end of this road were unsuccessful as we were almost over run by fire. We retreated further up the street and managed to save one home," the person wrote.

"At times it felt like no one was aware of where we actually were and we went without welfare the entire time," the submission says, adding the brigade's sector leaders "seemed to have very little knowledge of the task at hand and had little regard for crew safety".

"On a 40-degree day we were asked to cut a hand trail down a steep embankment WHICH WERE LATER TOLD WAS NOT NEEDED," the submission says.

Other submissions touched on the issue of central command versus the autonomy of local brigades, part of the ethos of a volunteer-dominated fire service that will likely play out further if the inquiry's recommendations get implemented.

As one volunteer involved in battling fires in Wanganderry in the High Range area north of Bowral said "there is a massive disconnect between RFS management and volunteers".

"The volunteers are the ones who know their country and how to defend it, the management are logistic managers and dictatorial in their approach, they seek to use the volunteers' advice and then treat them like pawns on a chess board".

The inquiry report acknowledges there was "a small number'' of submissions from people who were critical of the RFS, but adds it received a "large number" praising it and volunteers "who selflessly" fought fires.

On the issue of fatigue, the inquiry noted that unlike the paid workforces of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Fire and Rescue NSW, the RFS "does not have oversight of the volunteers' activities outside of NSW RFS actions".

While the inquiry emphasised how extreme last season's bushfires were – and how climate change is likely to see repeats or even worse in the future – much of the initial response from politicians and the media focussed on the contentious issue of land management even though the report itself suggests only modest changes.

Mary O’Kane, one of the authors of the report along with former deputy police commissioner Dave Owens, says the attention given to hazard-reduction burning was somewhat surprising as the inquiry found fuel loads going into last summer were no higher than the average over the past 30 years.

“There’s a belief that there was loads of fuel around,” O’Kane tells the Herald. “It was just super dry” because of the drought.

Deputy Premier John Barilaro says he offers "no apologies for making it abundantly clear the need for more strategic hazard reduction in bushfire-prone areas".

"The report is in line with the community’s wants but it doesn’t go far enough. and the NSW government will go further," he says.

The RFS has so far offered only a brief formal response to the report, with new commissioner Rob Rogers saying last season "was an extreme event that challenged everyone – including firefighters, agencies and the community like never before".

Ben Shepherd, a senior RFS spokesman, says that for prescribed burning on private land, the service would be seeking ways "to streamline" how such fires are approved so crews can take advantage of favourable weather – such as this weekend – when they occur instead of chasing approval from absent or deceased landholders.

The RFS, though, is cautious about fanning expectations that landholders will be free to light up as they like.

"I can't foresee having a whole lot of of people running around flicking matches," Shepherd says.

For Gorman, giving locals more say on how they prepare for and manage fire risks would be welcomed. He notes, though, that despite mentioning "community" 483 times, the report makes no recommendations about how such partnering or engaging with communities should work.

Moreover, with 100 square kilometres of private forests in the Kangaroo Valley alone, many landholders would struggle to manage fuel reduction without risking costly liabilities if neighbours's properties are affected.

"How do you burn 100 acres on the side of a hill without starting a major bushfire," Gorman says. "The problem is almost unsolvable. All we are going to end up doing is increasing what we ask volunteers to do.''

Older volunteers, such as farmers who can drive tractors and trucks and handle chainsaws, were already leaving the service before last summer's marathon battles. Of those remaining, some are "absolutely shattered and worn out", Gorman says.

Many of those fire-hit communities are struggling too. People such as Eger and his family are still processing their traumas.

'We're with you'

Back at the Milton operations centre on New Year's Eve, just after Eger took that distress call from his partner Melody, volunteers arrived from the South Coast brigades of Bawley Point and Lake Tabouri. They had heard the radio calls.

At first Eger dispatched them to his family's location but fearing they would not find the remote home amid the smoky chaos, he then pursued them in a command vehicle to provide guidance.

“I’m going in,” he told them near the top of the burning track into the property. Eight months on, he still chokes up a little when he recounts how the Bawley Point crew responded: “We’re with you.”

“The head of the fire had already gone through,” says Eger. “Everything was on fire and the trees were coming down.” It would be easy for the teams to be trapped.

At the house they discovered that although terribly burnt, Alex Frew had managed to carry June to the house where Melody had taken shelter and provided aid.

The couple, in their late 60s, had been out with the animals when Alex saw the ground beneath his feet shimmering in an ominous way.

The remains of Alex Frew’s protection gear after fire ripped through his family’s property near Manyana.

The radiant heat started to burn them in advance of the flames. Alex made his radio plea for help even as his hand was so badly burnt he couldn’t keep pressing the transmitter button. Melody took over.

Eger and the crew wrapped the worst of June's burns in Gladwrap but had little time to help Alex if they were to evacuate before the escape route was blocked.

Their luck held and as dusk approached Eger and Melody hugged as the helicopters airlifted her parents from the Manyana oval to hospitals in Sydney about 200 kilometres to the north.

Just this week, Alex lost a finger in surgery but he was soon back working on the property. June was there too, recovering from her burns, and caring for the wombats. The wallabies didn't make it.

Eger says he knows his psyche and those of other volunteers has been changed by last summer.

“You can’t walk away when the fire is coming, and we don’t and won’t," he says.

"But the RFS is ageing fast and these megafires keep coming. It’s going to get harder and harder for the crews to keep going like this, year in year out."

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